You have to hand it to Strasbourg’s European Court of Human Rights: it never ceases to come up with judgments that baffle or infuriate.
Seventeen judges from across Europe, from Andorra to Azerbaijan, have considered an appeal by a Muslim woman against France’s blanket ban on wearing the niqab in public. The niqab is a full-face veil leaving only an opening for the eyes.
The woman, referred to in the judgment as SAS, told the court that she wants to wear one in accordance with her religious faith, culture and personal convictions. It is entirely her choice, she insisted. Neither her husband nor any family member puts pressure on her to dress in this way.
It looks like an open-and-shut case: a clear breach of her Article 9 right to respect for freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
And while we are reeling out the numbers, banning the niqab is also an obvious violation of her Article 8 right to respect for private and family life and of article 14 prohibition of discrimination.
Except I’m wrong, of course, which is one of many reasons that I labour over a keyboard just off Fleet Street rather than sit on the bench in Strasbourg.
On 1 July, the 17 judges ruled by a majority that France has not breached any of SAS’s human rights. The ban on the niqab has nothing to do with its religious connotation, they held, but was based solely on the fact that it concealed the face.
Concealing the face has security implications, but more importantly in the court’s view it compromises one of the ‘minimum set of values of an open democratic society’ – namely ‘the minimum requirements of life in society or of living together’.
The court stated that concealing the face in public could ‘undermine the notion of living together’ because ‘the face played a significant role in social interaction’.
Hmmm… is that sophistry? Does France have similar restrictions on the size of, for instance, sunglasses that people may wear? After all, they obscure the features. As do big bushy beards, of course. And motorcycle helmets, hoodies... and scarves keeping your face warm in the winter.
Let’s whisper this: could it be that the court – and the French government – are pandering to populist fears that all Muslims, especially those ‘extremists’ who wear burqas and niqabs, are potential terrorists?
But surely the European Convention on Human Rights, the foundation stone of our liberty, protects the right of individuals for freedom of expression – even if that expression takes the form of dressing in a distinctive way.
Agreed, some Muslims would deny us freedom of expression – I’m thinking here of cartoons and novels deemed disrespectful to the Prophet – but we should rise above that, not emulate it.
France’s ban and the Strasbourg court’s endorsement of it seem, to this hack at least, to be compromising the very principles that we hold most dear. They also risk polarising Muslims and non-Muslims, rather than nurturing tolerance and mutual respect.
It is a retrogressive step and, maybe, a dangerous one, too.
Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff reporter